‘I know people who have been crying here in front of the screen’, say the Surinamese in the Netherlands

“I barely slept this weekend,” says Ray Darsan, director of the Rotterdam-based Surinamese radio station Stanvaste. On the one hand there were concerns about the turbulent situation in Suriname and on the other hand there was work. “Until late last night we spoke to all kinds of citizens and prominent people from Suriname to ask for their analyses. And I’m going again tonight. That is what we do: get the news straight from Suriname for the diaspora here,” says Darsan.

Last Friday, protests against the high prices and the government of President Chan Santokhi got completely out of hand in the Surinamese capital Paramaribo. The parliament building was pelted and stormed. Looters elsewhere in the city targeted shops and gas stations on Friday. There was a curfew and about a hundred people were said to have been arrested.

Demonstrations are not new to Suriname, Darsan emphasizes. “But with banners, protest signs and megaphones. Criminals came here and smashed everything.”

Stanvaste regularly broadcasts Surinamese politicians and opinion makers. More than a week ago, Stephano ‘Pakittow’ Biervliet, opposition politician and protest leader last Friday, still a guest.

He told about the big protest he was going to organize for February 17 with the motto: ‘Down with Chan’. The government must leave says Biervliet “because they have promised a lot and do little.”

After the protest got out of hand last Friday, Radio Station Stanvaste made every effort to find out exactly what had happened in Paramaribo. Witnesses from Suriname told the radio station that “from a certain angle” criminals and other unsavory types were brought to the city in an organized manner, by bus.

These people, some with bottles of beer in their hands, would have mingled with the ‘regular’ demonstrators in Paramaribo with the aim of escalating things.

Fall of Santokhi

Radio director Darsan wants to be careful because there is still insufficient evidence, but says many of his sources suspect that the riots were instigated by former president Desi Bouterse, who was last in power from 2010 to 2020. Bouterse, now 77 years old, heard another 20 years in prison (and immediate imprisonment) demanded against him last month in the appeal against the December murders in 1982.

A similar view is held by Dave Ensberg. Ensberg is vice-chairman of the Johan Ferrier Fund, a social organization that supports projects in Suriname. “Evil tongues claim that the riots were organized by people connected to Bouterse’s NDP with the aim that the riots and looting cause chaos leading to the fall of Santokhi.”

Many people are following the riots closely. It feels un-Surinamese

Dave Ensberg vice-chairman of the Johan Ferrier Fund

Darsan and Ensberg both rule out that protest leader Biervliet is behind the riots and looting. Although Ensberg thinks that Biervliet added a lot of fuel to the fire by demanding that the democratically elected president Santokhi must resign. Ensberg sees that the unrest in Paramaribo is very much alive in the Surinamese community in the Netherlands. “A lot of people follow it closely. I know people who cried in front of the screen last weekend. It really feels un-Surinamese.”

On a visit to Suriname, Ens-berg saw how bad the country is. Inflation is well above 50 percent. The country is deeply in debt. People with a middle-class job such as a teacher or nurse can no longer make ends meet, if their salary is transferred at all. Sometimes they call in sick and take another job.

Drug criminal

And President Santokhi, who succeeded Bouterse in 2020 with a promise to end corruption, is not delivering enough. For example, he appointed family members in important places and entered into a coalition with the party of convicted drug criminal Ronnie Brunswijk, who is vice president. That feeds the anxiety. Ensberg therefore pleads Monday an opinion piece to appoint a business cabinet until the 2025 elections.

“The people of Suriname are having a very hard time,” Darsan also sees. According to the radio director, many Dutch Surinamese get that. “Many people have family in Suriname and send money or aid packages and are told how bad the situation is.”

He has lost hope for a solution, partly because of the distribution of seats and internal dynamics in which the current government is being opposed by the NDP van Bouterse from the opposition. As an example he gives the government plan ‘no work no pay‘ which should make it possible to cut into the bureaucratic apparatus.

Suriname has at least 70,000 civil servants out of half a million inhabitants, and part of them were put down as voting cattle by the previous government. “That is now being countered with the argument ‘you see: they want to take jobs away and enrich themselves.”